YOU CAN’T HANDLE the truth!"
That line, from the 1992 movie A Few Good Men, epitomizes the Bush administration’s attitude toward the American public. Which raises a question: does the administration, like Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep, who delivered the now-classic line under cross-examination by Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee, have something to hide?
In recent months, the Bush White House has come to resemble the Nixon White House: secrecy has taken top priority. On September 26, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that in these times, Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do."
The next month, the White House pressured television networks not to air footage of Osama bin Laden even as the rest of the world watched him in all his fanatical glory. The official excuse given for the request was that bin Laden might be giving coded orders to members of his Al Qaeda terrorist network via the broadcasts and that networks could be unwitting conduits of information. Not that the White House had any proof of this — it was just a theory. But to hear bin Laden in full is to understand the true nature of his menace, much like reading Mein Kampf illuminates the full horror of the Nazis. Regardless of the administration’s explanation, the request was extraordinary and, if not outright censorship, just a few steps removed from it.
Last week, Bush issued an executive order allowing secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists. In such proceedings, the United States can make up its own trial rules as it goes along, conceal evidence under the rubric of "national security" concerns, and find a defendant guilty by just a two-thirds majority of the officers hearing the trial. Incredibly, it also means that some suspects could be put to death without ever hearing any of the evidence presented against them. As the New York Times’ William Safire put it in a November 15 column, Bush is replacing 200 years of constitutional law with "military kangaroo courts."
To be sure, all of the above comes as the administration tries to prosecute the war on terror. The loss of 5000 American lives — on American soil — is an unprecedented event in modern US history. It would be unreasonable to think the president and his administration wouldn’t stumble a few times in their quick, no-time-to-reflect responses to current events and developments.
But on November 1, Bush issued an executive order prohibiting the release of presidential documents unless the public can provide a compelling reason to view the information — as if learning what has been done in our name isn’t good enough reason to begin with. Before issuing the order, the administration had three times delayed the release of 68,000 documents from the Reagan-Bush administration that were scheduled for public access in January. It wasn’t until the country became consumed with national security and safety, however, that Bush dared to issue the executive order, which will gut the 1978 Presidential Records Act, passed in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s attempts to keep his presidential papers private. While Bush’s other moves can be seen in the context of our immediate peril, this executive order reveals the core of a mindset bent on keeping truth from people.
On the day the order was signed, Fleischer said that national security was its primary motivation. Please. The 1978 law already provides for national-security exemptions: papers dealing with non-sensitive matters can viewed five years after a president leaves office. Those dealing with all policy matters — regardless of whether they are sensitive or potentially embarrassing — are to be released 12 years after a president leaves office. Documents related to national security aren’t to be released for 25 years. Papers that can compromise the safety of the nation or ongoing security investigations can be kept private indefinitely. To put it even further into perspective, there are still 55 million, yes million, documents from the Reagan-Bush administration that have yet to be released to the public. The 68,000 set to be released in January are just the tip of the iceberg.
So what’s Bush hiding? Some of the papers relate to his father’s time in office as Reagan’s vice-president. And some of them might impact current Bush administration officials who served under Reagan-Bush: Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, budget director Mitchell Daniels, and economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey. We can only speculate on what Bush is trying to conceal from public view. Details of the Iran-Contra scandal? Our support for right-wing death squads in Latin America?
Nevertheless, the implications of the order are staggering: if a president who has left office wishes to make his papers public, the sitting president can refuse the request. As others have pointed out, this means that if former president Clinton or vice-president Gore wanted to release documents proving that their administration took the terrorism threat seriously and tried to capture bin Laden, Bush could refuse the release of these papers.
The executive order will seriously hinder scholars’ ability to write about a president and his administration. As presidential biographer Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power and President Nixon: Alone in the White House, recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece: "Archival research is grinding work. It takes years of perseverance to follow the paper trail documenting how the nation goes to war or raises taxes, how presidents choose their staffs. But the search becomes worthwhile when you ... find Richard Nixon asking Henry Kissinger, in a note, ‘Is is possible we were wrong from the start in Vietnam?’ "
Military tribunals? Subtle pressure for self-censorship? Telling Americans to watch what we say? All this sets a horrible tone. But much of Bush’s desperate wartime lunges for secrecy will eventually be reversed. The same can’t be said for his audacious executive order on presidential documents. Bush isn’t just protecting his father or some members of his current administration from what we can only assume are embarrassing revelations. He’s protecting himself from the same in 14 or, we shudder to think of it, 18 years.
Only Congress can overturn Bush’s executive order. Contact your US representative and senators and let them know you want this done. Visit www.senate.gov and www.house.gov/writerep/ for contact information.
What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com